Adrenaline-junky Simon Newman sneaks onto private land to explore a dangerous cave in Wales with a strange man he's met online. But Simon gets more than he bargained for when the expedition goes horribly wrong. Simon emerges, the only survivor, after a rainstorm trap the two in the cave. Simon thinks he's had a lucky escape.
But his video of his near-death experience has just gone viral.
The White Road is a hard novel to pigeon hole. Part adventure novel, part slacker comes of age novel and part ghost story. Sarah Lotz plumbs the depths and scales the heights in a book that is not for claustrophobes or those with vertigo.
The book opens with slacker Simon Newman preparing to do a caving expedition in Wales with a dodgy guide. Together with his friend Thaddeus, Simon is creating a website of odd things. The caves, known as Cwm Pot, have been closed since four cavers died but Simon wants to go through and get footage of the bodies for the website. The caving trip is nail bitingly tense. Lotz pulls out all stops to bring home the claustrophobia and terror of being stuck underground as the waters rise.
When we next meet Simon he is on a mission to climb Mt Everest. He is following in the footsteps of Juliet, a climber whose unedited diary is included in the text. Thaddeus has booked him a space on the trip by lying about his climbing experience. Again, his secret mission is to film the dead, abandoned on the mountainside. During the expedition Simon befriends Mark, who has a secret mission of his own.
The Everest scenes of the book are just as nerve wracking and white-knuckled as the caving scenes. Simon has some experience but is in reality a fairly untrained everyman in this situation. This effectively allows the reader to put themselves in his position. The sheer physical challenge of putting the human body to the test at those freezing altitudes is well described by Lotz as is the confusion engendered by oxygen deprivation at altitude.
But there is another element to this novel besides the armchair extreme sport aspect. Both Simon and Juliet are haunted by “the third man” a spectral figure who follows them around. This connection, which Simon discovers when he reads Juliet’s diaries, is teased out but never really explained. Could it be a common reaction to stress and grief or are these actually the spirits of the dead, forever attached to their victims?
The White Road is a fascinating exploration of what drives people to do things like climbing Everest but also has a creepy existential element that takes it out of the ordinary. Lotz provides plenty to think about but no easy answers and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Review - The Liar, Steve Cavanagh
A MISSING CHILD
When wealthy businessman Leonard Howell's daughter is kidnapped, the police jump on it straight away. But Howell knows this won't be straightforward - he needs someone willing to break the rules.
A CRIMINAL LAWYER
Once a con artist, now a hotshot lawyer, Eddie Flynn's learnt that fast talk and sleight of hand are just as important in the courtroom are they are on the street. Knowing what it's like to lose a daughter, he'll stop at nothing to save Howell's.
A CORRUPT CASE
Eddie Flynn, con man turned lawyer is back and once again it is not long before he is in all types of trouble. Trouble that only a man with his unique skill set and view of the world can even begin the sort out. The combination of roguish law breaking and courtroom antics are what have made the previous two Eddie Flynn outings (The Defense and The Plea) so much fun. The Liar is no exception.
The first third of The Liar charts the course of one night that Eddie would probably rather forget. Besides being served with a subpoena in a lawsuit that is going after his old mentor Harry, Eddie is called to help out Lenny, an old family friend from his grifter days. Lenny has made his money specialising in helping with kidnap cases and ransoms. When his own daughter is kidnapped Lenny looks to Eddie to help him outsmart not just the kidnappers but the FBI and police who he believe will get her killed. Immediately, Eddie is using his conman skills to help Lenny out. He may be on a legal retainer but the law is a long way away.
Six months later, the action turns to the courtroom, where Eddie’s other skill set is on display. The court cases in Eddie Flynn novels are probably nothing like the real thing and no more so than this one where the twists and turns even have the judge scratching her head. Helped by a couple of disaffected FBI agents, Flynn once again has to play a number of angles to navigate through an impossible looking situation and save his client.
Eddie Flynn continues to be one of the great thriller protagonists of recent years. He has the skills of a conman when he needs them, the tactical brain and silk tongue of a trail lawyer and every now and then goes all action hero.
There are plenty of twists and turns in The Liar, most connecting to an old case regarding a woman called Julie Rosen whose story opens the book and returns throughout in small vignettes. While the final reveal is a little obvious for voracious readers of this kind of thriller, there is too much fun getting there to care. The tension does not let up, the stakes are continually being raised for Eddie, his client and his friends. And coupled with constant if sometimes contrived cliffhangers, readers will not need much convincing to keep turning the pages.
Review - A Boy in Winter, Rachel Seiffert
Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS.
Deft, spare and devastating, Rachel Seiffert's new novel tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the process.
Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak.
Come in search of her lover, to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia must confront new and harsh truths about those closest to her.
Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter, explores the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine and the impact on its Jewish population by focusing on one small village. There is always a question whether we need more books set in World War II. But in an age of continuing Holocaust denial and ongoing genocidal wars, reliving, remembering and investigating this time becomes more and more important.
When the book opens two small boys are running through the night, it will be some time before Seiffert catches up with them again, by which time they will be truly on their own. The next morning, the SS and the Ukrainian police round up all of the Jews in the village and march them to a holding area. In keeping with the sharp focus of this book, the process is told through the eyes of the elderly school master and his elderly mother who are beaten as they are herded through the town. The rest of the local populace does nothing but watch through shuttered windows as their former neighbours are taken from their homes.
Seiffert’s narrative ranges across a diverse cast of characters. One is Otto Pohl, an engineer who has been employed by the SS to build a road through the Ukrainian marshland, a symbol of the Thousand Year Reich. Pohl became an engineer to avoid having to go into the German army but soon finds himself just as compromised as he might have been as a soldier. His project is being built by slave labour and when he is asked to pick out new labourers from the imprisoned Jews he final starts to reconsider his decisions. Another is Yasia, a Ukrainian peasant girl who eventually risks her own life to help the two boys escape from the town.
A Boy in Winter is confronting. But this is a necessary confrontation, a reminder and a warning about what happens when people allow themselves to be carried along with things they are uncomfortable with without speaking up, when they allow their fellow citizens to be treated as less than human. For those who are unfamiliar with the rapid and systematic murder of Jews in the Ukraine, the fate of the Jewish population of the town may come as something of a shock. But for others, it is the build-up that is excruciating, the way in which the people are dehumanised by the SS to the point where killing and disposal of the dead becomes merely a logistical exercise, one that poses no moral or ethical issues for the soldiers. Pohl, the only German who seems to care finds himself unable to speak up, trapped by his position and his conflicted loyalties he turns away from what is happening.
There is a little grey here – while the majority of the populace either turn away from the massacre or participate, the narrative does focus on the few people who come forward to help or protect the two runaway boys. But their reactions leaves one to wonder whether help would have been quite as forthcoming if two adults were seeking to escape. Despite small moments of goodness, A Boy in Winter is a dark book dealing with a dark time in human history. But given the continuing propensity of people to retreat into nationalist us-versus-them rhetoric, it is a time that we can not be allowed to forget.
Review - Ragdoll, Daniel Cole
The nation is gripped by the infamous 'Ragdoll Killer'
Your friends, your family and your neighbours are all talking about it.
In a short author interview at the end of Ragdoll, Daniel Cole explains how he put the novel together. He wanted something that was less po-faced that the run of the mill British television crime drama but something not as cheesy as American television crime drama like Castle. And while he has partially succeeded in Ragdoll, he does end up leaning very heavily towards the cheesy/contrived end of the spectrum.
Ragdoll opens with the trial of the Cremation Killer – a man known for burning his young, female victims. The trial goes south and police investigator William Oliver Lawton-Fawkes, aka the Wolf, unable to take this miscarriage of justice, attacks and almost kills the defendant. When he is later proved right, Wolf is reinstated to the Force so that four years later when a body is found composed of the body parts of six different people he is on the case. The body, nicknamed the “ragdoll” has been left in such a way that it points towards the flat in which Fawkes in living. And when the head of that body turns out to be the Cremation Killer, connections to that earlier case start to haunt the current investigation.
Things become more complicated and the race is on when the killer announces his next six victims and names the dates on which they are going to die. Wolf is number six on that list and his ex-wife Andrea is the news reader who breaks the story to the world.
Ragdoll does have the trappings of a British police procedural but a particularly sloppy one in which half of the investigators should have recused themselves from the case well before their connections have become obvious to everyone. There is an enjoyable strain of morbid humour running through the narrative and a forced element of unresolved sexual tension between Wolf and his fellow investigator Baxter. But Ragdoll also reads like one of those over-the-top American serial killer thrillers in which the killer uses seemingly superhuman foresight and planning in order to get to their victims in the most innovative ways. There is a nice twists to the killer’s motives and some explanation for his powers of planning but pausing to think about how any of this is possible is not all that helpful in this style of thriller.
Cole may have been going for something a little different with Ragdoll but instead he just ends up with more of the same. For readers who like this sort of thing, Ragdoll, ticks all of the right boxes and they will find the pages almost turning themselves, not giving them time to think about the lack of logic. But there is nothing really to make this book stand out from the crowd other than more macabre ways of displaying dead bodies and inventive ways of killing others (you might never look at an inhaler in the same way again).
Review - From Darkest Skies, Sam Peters
FROM DARKEST SKIES is a high-concept science fiction thriller wrapped around a love story, a man's search for the truth about his dead wife, and his relationship with the artificial intelligence he has built to replace her. Set in a future where the aliens came, waged war, and then vanished again, this is a striking new voice in science fiction.
Sam Peters creates an offworld noirish detective story in From Darkest Skies. At first blush Koenig Rause, generally known as Keys, exhibits all the traits of a classic age detective. Thrown out of his job for some serious but unspecified misdemeanour, only in that job after fleeing his real job as an investigator, full of self loathing, crawling back to his old team to try and solve the case that made everything go bad. That case – the death of his wife Alysha in more than suspicious circumstances. So far, so noir.
The twist in this tale is that Keys is going back to the planet Magenta with an illegal robotic simulation of his wife in tow. Unable to cope with the grief, he has illegally constructed an artificial intelligence that looks like his dead wife and carries memories constructed from all of the public and private data he could make available. The real Alysha kept things from Keys about her work and as his new version has no access to private information, the AI cannot help him with those details.
From Darkest Skies starts on Earth. The early going in this book is tough, with Peters engaging in plenty of tell don’t show exposition. In a nutshell – some aliens came, killed lots of people and then distributed many of the rest across 37 planets for reasons still unknown. Keys himself comes from Magenta, an icy planet ironically settled mainly by Polynesians. Magenta is not all that hospitable – only a small equatorial band is inhabitable and even then the weather is shocking. And it sports a gravity 1.4 times that of Earth so that many people require a type of gene therapy and drugs to survive on the surface.
Keys returns to Magenta where he is given a small, slightly offbeat team which he enhances by taking on an old friend of his wifes. They are tasked with investigating the death of an heriess, killed by what was supposed to be a harmless recreational drug native to the planet. It is not long before this investigation and Keys off the book investigation into the death of Alysha five years before start to run into each other.
When the investigation finally kicks off, From Darkest Skies works as an effective science fiction police procedural mash up. There is the requisite evil corporation, departmental politics, personality clashes, a mysterious stranger who seems to be one step ahead and some interesting action sequences. And behind it all a much larger mystery. The problem is that there is much of Peter’s universe that is only vaguely sketched. So that the connections between Key’s investigation and the broader context of that universe, including why humanity has been scattered and what the evil corporations are actually trying to achieve is vague at best.
Comparisons have been made with Humans and Westworld, probably due to the existence of an AI character, the idealised version of Keys’ wife Alysha. But while it has an android character who is essential to the plot, From Darkest Skies is not really like either of these. It is its own form of hybrid robot, noir crime, space opera, corporate skulduggery story and when it works or when it doesn’t work it does so on its own terms.
Review - Full Bore, William McInnes
Drivers caught in the act when they believe they are unobserved at the traffic lights, collectible toys from the cereal packets of yore, awkward dinner party conversations and the messy universe of the young are all in safe hands here. The snapshots of every day life provide glorious material for FULL BORE, another celebration by author William McInnes of what richness can be found in the small moments.
The author, in both writing and speaking mode, is a master at going off on a tangent and then circling back to his original rumination. McInnes can be a bit Douglas Adams ala THE HITCH HIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY in this regard. You get the impression that nothing is wasted in this author’s day; all his small observations of the lives of others are retained and plopped into a basket of thoughts after which any may be usefully extracted as required. Having heard him speak several times at writers’ festivals, I can happily say that he can reproduce this whip smart narration on the spot at a moment’s notice – he is frighteningly sharp and probably quite terrifying to interview.
The scattered memoir books of McInnes are all similar in style and successful in drawing back Australian readers into what it was like growing up and maturing in the Australian suburbs. Sport features a fair bit. Random encounters with strangers provide a lot of whimsical material. So do the numerous snapshots featuring family, friends and colleagues. The latter category is quite vast as McInnes crammed a lot into his professional life whilst raising his kids and sometimes working alongside his late wife, Sarah Watt. Regardless of where McInnes sources his material from, it all manages to be relatable content.
McInnes always gives the impression that he takes nothing for granted and that all of life’s experiences are worthwhile. They might end up in a bestselling book one day. It is true – William McInnes is a born storyteller, spinner of yarns and writer of a solid collection of very entertaining books about Australian life. Funny to read and full of laconic warmth, these works will resonate, regardless from whatever piece of Australian it is that you hail from.
FULL BORE, as is with the other works by this author, does leave you feeling a little bit melancholic about our shared Australian past but reassures us that life goes on and that there will always be much more to experience. The best parts of it are still there in the every day and the bells and whistles were never what it was all about.
Review - Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
I LOVED YOU
I HATED YOU
I NEVER KNEW YOU...
Rachel's husband adores her. When she hit rock bottom, he was there with her every step of the way as she slowly regained her confidence, and her sanity. But his mysterious behaviour forces her to probe for the truth about her beloved husband.
How can she feel certain that she ever knew him?
And was she right to ever trust him?
Dennis Lehane takes a swerve away from his long running Kenzie and Genaro series (which includes Gone, Baby Gone) and his recent prohibition and gangsters trilogy to deliver a psychological thriller of sorts. Since We Fell is a book that is hard to categorise. In some ways it is an extended character study and in others it is an extremely long con not only of some of the characters but of the reader. For that reason it takes a long time for the novel to really come into focus with some readers possibly only hanging in to resolve the strong opening hook.
Since We Fell opens with a bang, literally. Rachel shoots her husband on the deck of a boat and he flops over the side. Why she has taken the shot and what happens next will have to wait as Lehane takes us back to Rachel’s childhood and her difficult relationship with her mother. Following her mother’s death, Rachel goes on a years long search for the father that she never knew and who her mother refused to tell her about. Through this search she meets Brian, a private detective who, after much trauma on her part comes spectacularly back into her life.
The first two thirds of Since We Fell is essentially a character study of Rachel – the foundation of her deep anxieties and agoraphobia, her desire for safety and security, her extreme response when things don’t turn out the way she expects. Only some of which is really relevant for the final third of the book when the pieces fall into place and the action kicks in. At which point Since We Fell starts to feel like a different book altogether – full of violent goons, sleights of hand and plenty of gun play.
It feels like Lehane is trying to do too much in Since We Fell. The naturalistic exploration of Rachel’s mental state is undermined by the extreme suspension of disbelief needed to follow the plot. And again, in the final third of the book Rachel manages to throw off the burden of mental illness that she has been carrying in order to both forward that plot and be an effective actor in its resolution. The idea being, I think, that all she really needed was something bigger to focus on outside of her own worries.
The lengthy and detailed start of the book becomes irrelevant by about half way through, used only as a way to manoeuvre various characters into place. The original hook is almost forgotten by the time it rolls around again, with only some well-timed hints to keep the reader’s appetite whetted. And its resolution requires such a breathtaking suspension of disbelief that it skews the rest of the plot. The last third, while nominally exciting and well written does not feel it resolves any of the real issues that were raised earlier on and just leaves the reader constantly asking “but why…?”. So that in the end Since We Fell doesn’t work. There is definitely some psychology here but possibly not the psychological thriller that fans of Lehane’s work and of good thrillers more broadly would have been hoping for.
BOOK REVIEW - THE GIRL BEFORE, J.P. DELANEY
The title alone tells us that someone has died. We know that the girl who came before is going to exert an influence on the present-day protagonist; someone’s footsteps are going to be walked in once again. So how did the girl before come to her end?
The setting of THE GIRL BEFORE is all important and gives structure to a story that is essentially carried out with in four walls of one very spectacular and unusual house. There are shades of ‘Hal’ in this book too which are delicious, as in that an omnipresent technological mind is controlling the conditions thus manipulating the lives of the occupants of the house. Or is it really?
Poor self esteem, the classic pull of the bad boy and just seriously bad taste all come together to push the sanity of both past Emma, and present Jane. Is it an insult for an untidy person to occupy such a carefully crafted space or is the best creational work still in progress, as in the moulding of the occupant to the new home?
Author J.P. Delaney (a pseudonym) has written here a curiously oppressive work about two women who have occupied the same space in different periods of time. Both characters you literally wish to grab by the shoulders and deliver a good dressing down to, but both were chosen for their vulnerabilities and not their strengths. In this time where wanting less is a real angst of the privileged, the minimalistic setting of this book delivers its own clever and simmering threat of restraint, purposeful conduct and menace.
As in all best works of suspense, no one is quite who they seem and THE GIRL BEFORE deep dives into secret desires of three very modern people with frank aplomb. The ending does make you question just why you came to the conclusions that you did – maybe you overthought that one?
A very clever and absorbing book, THE GIRL BEFORE is a psychological thriller that delivers. Read the book now, as hopefully the big screen adaptation won’t be too far away.
Review - Tattletale, Sarah J. Naughton
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who believed in fairytales. Now she is out to get your happy ending.
One day changes Jody's life forever.
She has shut herself down, haunted by her memories and unable to trust anyone. But then she meets Abe, the perfect stranger next door and suddenly life seems full of possibility and hope.
If you happen to find yourself feeling slightly confused and muddled in the early chapters of TATTLETALE - hang in there. It takes a while for everyone and everything in this novel to fall into place, but once they do - hang on for the rest of the ride.
Using an unusual structure, and some really complicated character back-stories, TATTLETALE starts out with Mags receiving an unexpected phone call. Her estranged brother Abe is in hospital back in their native UK, and no-one seems to know what was behind his fall from the 4th floor of the converted church that he, Jody his fiancé and an array of neighbours all have flats within.
Megs feels compelled to head back to the UK, after many years working as a lawyer in the US, for reasons which are complicated and very emotional. It's obvious right from the start that the story of Mags and Abe's childhood is going to be fraught, but it seems that everybody here has similar baggage that they are lumping around. The woman by Abe's bedside - his fiancé Jody has her own troubled past, and she and Mags not only have to find a way to come to terms with Abe's condition, but with each other.
TATTLETALE has an intriguing plot, as Mags tries to find out more about the brother she hardly knows, and the truth behind the fall - was it suicide, an accident or an attempt on his life. All the while the crime may or may not be what happened to Abe. It could be part of the harrowing child sexual abuse and rape stories that are revealed as the narrative continues. It could really be a lot of other possibilities as things progress. One thing that TATTLETALE does particularly well is confuse and bewilder. An emotion the reader is quite free to assume that Mags is experiencing as well.
The character's portrayed are also complex and extremely believable. Mags is prickly, moody and wildly unpredictable at points. She's unsympathetic and yet she's there - at the side of a brother she's not seen for many years. There is much in her background that is revealed as the novel proceeds - and readers are left to decide if those revelations are enough to excuse the difficult persona. Jody is different, almost passive, and obviously profoundly troubled. Her concern and affection for Abe could be touching, or it could be uncomfortably cloying - it's left up to the reader to decide. Even the snippets of Abe's life, prior to the coma, are left open to reader interpretation. It seems he might possibly be hiding something - but whether or not you'll guess what that is before it's revealed is a combination of a keen eye for obscure details and a willingness to extrapolate.
In a novel that's likely to polarise opinions, there are a lot of twists and turns, and a lot of opportunities for the reader to like, dislike, feel sorry for and want to throttle so many of the characters that it becomes quite the roller-coaster ride. For this reader, nothing in TATTLETALE was quite what it seemed, nobody quite who they were supposed to be and everything just slightly worse than you could have hoped it would turn out to be. It was therefore, compelling and frequently discomforting reading.
Review - Kingdom of The Strong, Tony Cavanaugh
If you are a previous reader to this series, you will know that Darian Richards operates under the direction of his own personal moral code, as determined solely by him. He is not one of those battered and brooding protagonists – it is more that he has given up caring about the larger world and has contented himself with the concerns of his small circle of people. Once he commits, he commits.
Author Tony Cavanaugh has had a long and illustrious career in film and tv and thus brings that excellent crafting of place and character to his crime novels. All of his creations are wholly convincing and though sketched with typical Australian economy, they are entirely recognizable in their landscape.
KINGDOM OF THE STRONG is strongly anchored to the Melbourne setting and the reader is very much travelling along the streets with investigator Darian Richards. The same themes do thread through the novels in this series; loss, redemption, loyalty and betrayal and KINGDOM OF THE STRONG gives a little illumination to the before, as in what Darian was like when he was operating, albeit loosely, within the parameters of the Victorian police force.
Darian Richards is one of those crime fiction characters that you want to know more about with each series entry. Darian’s world is familiar yet his slant on it is not. KINGDOM OF THE STRONG is another strong novel in a compelling series that powers forward with Darian’s insight into what is visible on the surface, and the underside which perhaps might not be seen, but is always present.